The Meaning of Lent with some Carmelite Insights
In Catholic liturgy the place to look for the meaning of a feast or a season in the prefaces of the Mass. In the first Lent preface we address the Father in these words: Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind
and heart renewed. You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father, and of willing service to our neighbour.
As we recall the great events that gave us new life in Christ, you bring the image of your Son to perfection within us. Lent then is a joyful season.
The Carmelite Rule
The Carmelite Rule is among the briefest of the great rules.4 It is just over 1,500 words. The hermits living on Mount Carmel asked the local bishop, St. Albert of Avogadro (ca 1150- 1214), then Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, for a rule or way of life sometime after 1206. These hermits lived in separate cells but were gathered into a fraternity by the Rule of Albert. The Carmelite Rule consists of twenty-four short paragraphs dealing with the basic structures of the settlement on Mount Carmel, with liturgical and personal prayer, and with regulations concerning fasting, silence, work and spiritual warfare (based on Eph 6:10-18). A remarkable feature of this Rule is the number of times that the legislator inserts moderating clauses that allow exceptions depending on circumstances. The prior is appointed “by common consent;” places are to be “suitable and convenient;” refectory reading is prescribed if it “can be done without difficulty;” there is constant prayer, “unless there is another duty;” goods are to be distributed “according to need;” daily Mass is enjoined if “there is no difficulty.” In the two paragraphs on fasting and abstinence there are eleven exclusions with the reminder, “necessity overrides every law.”
You are to fast every day except Sundays from the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross until Easter Sunday, unless illness or bodily weakness, or other just cause counsels a lifting of the fast, since necessity has no law.
You are to abstain from meat, unless it is to be taken as a remedy for illness or bodily weakness. Since you must more frequently beg on journeys, in order not to burden your hosts you may eat food cooked with meat outside your own houses. At sea, however, meat may be eaten. (nn. 16, 17)
But the main asceticism of the Carmelite Rule will be found in the chapter on spiritual armour, based largely on Eph 6:10-17.
Since human life on earth is a trial and all who want to live devotedly in Christ suffer persecution; your enemy the devil prowls about like a roaring lion seeking whom he might devour. You must then with all diligence put on the armour of God so that you may be able to stand up to the ambushes of the enemy.
Your loins are to be girded with the belt of chastity; your breast is to be protected by holy thoughts, for the Scripture says, holy thoughts will save you. Put on the breastplate of justice, so that you may love the Lord your God from your whole heart, your whole soul and your whole strength, and your neighbour as yourselves. In all things take up the shield of faith, with which you will be able to extinguish all the darts of the evil one; without faith, indeed, it is impossible to please God. The helmet of salvation is to be placed on your head, so that you may hope for salvation from the one Saviour, who saves his people from their sins. The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, is to dwell abundantly in your mouths and hearts. So whatever you have to do, is to be done in the word of the Lord. (nn. 18, 19).
Other ascetical norms are about work and silence. The very last words of the Rule are “See that the bounds of common sense are not exceeded, however, for common sense is the guide of the virtues” (utatur tamen discretione, que virtutum est moderatrix). The author is strictest not on fasting or other practices, but about work, serious and continual work: “earn you bread by silent work; this is the way of holiness and goodness; see that you follow it.” The broad and compassionate tone of the Rule has in a profound way left its mark on Carmel.